It's a rare day when anything involving Derek Jeter flies under the radar, but such was the case this weekend, when the 39-year-old icon began his long-awaited rehab stint with the Yankees' Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre affiliate. Overshadowed first by the controversy surrounding the start of Alex Rodriguez's own rehab stint and then by the announcement of the All-Star rosters, he played in his first two regular season games since fracturing his left ankle in the American League Championship Series last Oct. 13.
After getting about 50 at-bats in simulated games at the Yankees' complex in Tampa, Jeter made his 2013 debut on Saturday for the RailRiders, going 0-for-2 with a walk and playing five innings at shortstop. He lined out to second base once, grounded out once and made one clean play in the field on a routine grounder. Though he took infield practice prior to Sunday's game, he served as the designated hitter and went 1-for-2, singling and adding a pair of walks. He revved up to full speed to go first-to-third on a single in the seventh inning.
All in all, it was a welcome sign of progress. Given Jeter's durability over the years — just one disabled list stint since 2003 — the sight of him being carried from the field with a season-ending injury after diving for a groundball during the 12th inning of the ALCS opener was a shocking one. He soon underwent surgery to implant a metal plate and screws and spent much of the winter riding a motorized scooter around his mansion. On March 7, he received a clean bill of health, and while he worked his way back into the Yankees' spring lineup by March 9, he played in just five Grapefruit League games before suffering a setback. As of Opening Day, the team had hoped he would be in pinstripes around May 1, but after further setbacks, he was diagnosed with an additional crack in his ankle on April 18, forestalling his return until after the All-Star break.
Jeter's injury was just one of many casualties suffered by New York's lineup, not even including the anticipated absence of Rodriguez, who underwent surgery to repair a torn hip labrum in mid January and wasn't expected back until after the break. With Mark Teixeira lost for the season due to a tendon sheath injury in his wrist, Curtis Granderson serving two DL stints for hit-by-pitch-related fractures, the left side of the infield missing in action, and fill-ins Kevin Youkilis and Eduardo Nunez lost for extended periods as well, the Yankee offense has sagged to an uncharacteristic 12th in the league in scoring at 3.95 runs per game, remaining afloat only because of the team's surprisingly strong pitching. Through Sunday, the Yankees are 48-40, in fourth place and five games back in the AL East standings, but only half a game down in the race for the second wild-card spot.
Despite Jeter's current placement and Sunday's indications of him recovering his timing and his speeed, the Yankees aren't likely to activate him until after the All-Star break; they start the second half with a series against the Red Sox in Fenway Park on Friday, July 19. Manager Joe Girardi sounded typically cautious when he discussed Jeter's progress with reporters prior to Sunday's game. From the LoHud blog:
“What’s my patented answer?… “He’s ready when he’s ready. You have to see how he’s moving around, how he’s responding physically to playing everyday. I think he’s DHing today, and you have to build him. He has to be able to play more than five innings once every three days. We’ll go through this week, I’m sure, and we’ll make an evaluation.”
In Jeter's absence, the Yankees have started five different players at shortstop: Jayson Nix (40 starts), Nunez (28), Reid Brignac (12), Alberto Gonzalez (five) and Luis Cruz (three). Nunez, the closest thing the Yankees have to an heir apparent to the future Hall of Famer, served as the regular for the season's first month but hit just .200/.290/.275 before going on the disabled list on May 6 due to an oblique strain. He began his rehab stint on June 27 and played in seven minor league games at three stops before being activated by the Yankees on Saturday, when he went 2-for-3 with an RBI single and a sacrifice fly int he Yankees' 5-4 win over the Orioles; he went 1-for-3 with another sac fly in their 2-1 loss on Sunday. Nix, who has hit just .236/.303/.304 while seeing time at short and third, hit the DL on July 3 due to a hamstring strain. Brignac went just 5-for-44 in his stint with the Yankees before being released, and Cruz, who enjoyed a nice late-season breakout with the Dodgers last year, was just pulled off the waiver pile last week after hitting an unfathomable .127/.175/.169 in 128 plate appearances for L.A. this year. He's 4-for-18 with the Yankees thus far, and drove in runs during three straight wins from July 4-6.
All told, the five players have been decidedly un-fabulous in Jeter's absence, hitting .212/.272/.287 for the league's second-lowest OPS at the position while being eight runs below average defensively according to Defensive Runs Saved. Jeter should be a vast improvement upon that, at least on the offensive side, though expecting the 39-year-old to recover the form via which he hit .316/.362/.429 in 2012 with a league-leading 216 hits (his most since 1999) and 15 homers (his most since 2009) is a stretch. The team can't expect to gain as much ground afield, given that he was 18 runs below average last year according to DRS and has similarly been 17 runs below average per 162 games over the previous three seasons. But all told, even a modest return to form could represent at least a two-win improvement over the remainder of the season, which isn't nothing given the tightly-clustered wild-card and AL East races.
Furthermore, Jeter can resume his climb up the all-time hit list. His 3,304 career hits ranks 11th all time, and in short order he should be able to surpass Eddie Collins (3,315) and Paul Molitor (3,319) to move into the top 10, though surpassing Carl Yaztrezmski (3,419) this year is almost certainly out of the question; he'll have to wait until he exercises his $9.5 million player option for next year to do that — and why wouldn't he? Given his pride and his competitive nature, a decidedly un-Jeteresque return would likely spur him to go out on a higher note. As for Rodriguez, his rehab stint — which began last Wednesday — continues to move along at a slower pace because unlike Jeter, he didn't even see any spring training action. Moved up to Tampa after two games at Single-A Charleston, he collected his first hit of the season on Saturday, a sharp single up the middle. In five innings of action, he was also hit by a pitch and handled three defensive chances at third base, two of which required extra effort. He's expected to need the maximum 20 days of his rehab assignment, which barring further setbacks would mean a July 22 return to the Yankees lineup.